Criminal Justice Reforms Must Include Youth Behind Bars

Last week was unofficially criminal justice reform week. The president made an unprecedented statement on the need for criminal justice reforms at the NAACP's national convening and made a first-ever visit by a president to a federal prison.

The U.S. House of Representatives' Oversight Committee led by Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings held hearings where a bipartisan group of Senators, Representatives and Governors along with other witnesses testified on the need to overhaul the criminal justice system, including federal statutes and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Most of the discussions last week centered on federal laws and federal corrections, and not on reforming state laws and state and local detention and corrections. And the juvenile justice system received scant attention. To be fair, the president did make a couple of remarks about youth, such as, "We've got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different," and "What is normal is young people making mistakes." And among the hearing witnesses thanks to Representative Elijah Cummings, I testified about the need for juvenile justice reforms and several members of Congress did ask questions about youth in the justice system at the hearings.

The president and congress should not leave out youth behind bars in efforts to reform criminal justice this year and their actions must focus on reforms at both the federal and state level.

Here's why:

Youth are locked up in the states, not in federal corrections. In the U.S., nearly 80,000 on any given day are detained or incarcerated in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems in the states and localities. A small percentage of youth are under the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons and most of these youth are incarcerated in youth prisons through contracts with the states.

Tens of thousands of youth are already in the adult criminal justice system. Every year, an estimated 200,000 youth are prosecuted in adult criminal courts. The research demonstrates unequivocally that trying and sentencing children in adult court does not reduce crime. In fact, it does just the opposite. Trying youth as adults has both a detrimental impact on the youth tried as adults and decreases public safety. That is why most justice system professionals and the U.S. Attorney General's Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence report recommend that "We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow."

Incarceration in the juvenile justice system is a significant predictor of involvement in the adult criminal justice system. States and localities lock up youth even though the vast majority don't pose a risk to public safety. However, incarcerating youth increases the likelihood that youth will re-offend. Essentially, youth are much worse off after being incarcerated. Removing them from their homes and communities and placing them in correctional settings disrupts youths' education and their healthy psychological development by disconnecting them from family, peers and activities that require critical thinking and independent decision-making.

The costs for taxpayers and youth are enormous. Even with all the data on the ineffectiveness and harm of incarceration, states and localities continue to spend the bulk of their juvenile justice funds on incarceration instead of on more effective and much less costly alternatives to incarceration.

This comes at a high price not just for taxpayers, topping $6 billion per year, but for the youth themselves. Not a week goes by without a headline in some newspaper citing abuse of a young person in one of these facilities in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

And this abuse of incarcerated youth is increasing according to a new report, Maltreatment in Youth in U.S. Correctional Facilities, released in June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report documents an increase in the number of states where youth are abused, from 22 states to 29.

For example, we recently heard news reports about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who as a teenager was charged as an adult, accused of taking a backpack, and spent three years including one year in solitary confinement awaiting trial at Rikers, an adult jail in New York City. In another recent case, six detention facility staff in Brevard County, Florida were disciplined in the death of 14-year-old Andre Sheffield at the Brevard County Juvenile Detention Center.

The profound racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system begin in juvenile justice. Youth of color, like Kalief Browder and Andre Sheffield, are disproportionately impacted by incarceration. For example, African-American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Latino youth are 1.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth and Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.

To ensure that juvenile justice reforms in the states are part of any criminal justice reform effort, Congress needs to include an overhaul of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in any criminal justice reform package this year.

Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Whitehouse (D-RI) have introduced and plan to consider S. 1169 in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. This bill would strengthen the JJDPA's core protections for youth by eliminating the detention of status offenders, banning the placement to youth in adult jails, and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Further, Congress should support states in increasing the age of criminal court responsibility to age 18 through legislation such as the S. 675/H.R. 1672, the REDEEM Act.

The president and his Administration need to actively and visibly support these juvenile justice bills and urge that they are part of any comprehensive criminal justice reform package that Congress considers this year.

Further, the president must swiftly undertake executive actions to accelerate and expand state reforms to increase the age of criminal responsibility to age 18 and shift resources from youth incarceration to evidence-informed, community-based, non-residential alternatives to incarceration for youth through vigorous technical assistance, training, research and dedicated resources from within the U.S. Department of Justice.

And any criminal justice reform package must be informed by directly impacted youth, a constituency noticeably absent at congressional hearings and in policy discussions with Congressional and Administration officials.

Kalief Browder and Andre Sheffield's deaths are a sobering reminder to the president and the congress of the urgency and the need to ensure youth behind bars are not left behind.